Please enjoy this excerpt from Dear Son: Raising Faithful, Just, and Compassionate Men (letters from Jonathan B. Hall and Beau T. Underwood to their young sons)
My joy at first seeing you is hard to express in words. In an instant, my entire world changed. My reasons for living had expanded and deepened. You were here, dependent upon your mother and me. We entered the hospital as a family of two and left as a family of three. I recall strolling by the nurses’ station as we departed and waiting for them to stop us from leaving. Part of me could not believe we got to take you home. The other part of me could not believe they trusted us to keep you alive! But we quickly got over the imposter syndrome and on with the business of parenting. We left with a profound sense of purpose caused by your newfound presence among us.
As a pastor, one of my annual roles is preaching a sermon on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. I stand up before a bunch of Christians to address what the shepherds call “this thing that has happened” (Luke 6:15 NIV). Some preachers live for this moment, but frankly I find it daunting. My task is to say something captivating and meaningful about a story the congregation knows almost by heart. They may conflate the different versions in Matthew and Luke, but they’re familiar with how the events unfolded.
Except that they do not really understand it at all. None of us do. The story seems familiar on the surface, but when you dive a little deeper, the whole thing becomes unfathomable. The main claim is that God became like us in Jesus Christ. We call this the “Incarnation.” Christians believe that, in the Incarnation, God came to be with us, but that idea is so exotic that our words are not as coherent as they sound. The most appropriate response we can offer to this astounding thing God has done is awe. On many occasions, I have been tempted to stand silently in the pulpit and just stare at the nativity scene with my mouth agape. My gawking would nicely convey the message. “Here is God!” announce the angels. Other than stunned surprise, is there any response that is appropriate?
Rather than preaching that stirring message in such a silent fashion, my words—and I presume that of many other pastors—usually dwell not on the metaphysics of God’s arrival but on the implications that arrival or advent has for our lives. God is here! Now, what do we do? The obvious answer is take notice, change your ways accordingly, and experience the abundant life being offered.
To be clear, I would never liken you to the Christ child. You may be my perfect son but none of us is a perfect human. Plus, I want to keep your ego in check for all the discussions we are destined to have down the proverbial road. Still, there’s an analogy between the birth of Jesus and welcoming a baby of your own. Your priorities have to change dramatically. Being a parent calls you to a new way of denying yourself and living for someone else.
To be your dad has required significant sacrifices. There are books left unread, ball games that went unwatched, and a lot of money spent on things I never would have bought for myself. Those costs are real but I have no regret about them. Love and joy motivated every expense and sacrifice.
The comparison to the Christian life runs even deeper. For too many people, the biggest obstacle to following Jesus is what they perceive having to give up. As G.K. Chesterton, the philosopher and theologian, once wrote: “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.” Those intrigued by Christian faith realize their lives will have to change. The costs appear quite high, so some people decide to forego the adventure. This emphasis on the burdens of being a disciple fails to account for any of the benefits. The sacrifice may be significant but the sheer blessing that comes with the experience is incalculable.
Julian of Norwich, the mystical writer from the Middle Ages, claimed that “the fullness of joy is to behold God in everything.” Her exhortation reverses, yet compliments, scripture’s promise that we are filled with joy when we enter the presence of God (Psalm 16:11). There is a Christmas sermon here that I have not yet preached about finding joy in the manger and then seeing Christ everywhere else.
What I have realized is how joy overcame me in receiving you as a gift. To hold you was to feel as if I was in the presence of God. Your entrance into our lives was not an accomplishment on our end but a creative act of the Divine, whereby something wonderful was shared with us not because we deserved it but because there is a love underlying the world that surpasses our understanding...
Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love, trans. Barry Windeatt (London: Oxford University Press, 2015).